Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, February 28, 2008


In aboriginal languages, there are no possessive pronouns.

by Barbara Nussbaum

from Resurgence issue 221

In African culture, ubuntu is the capacity to express compassion, justice, reciprocity, dignity, harmony and humanity in the interests of building, maintaining and strengthening community. An Nguni word from South Africa, ubuntu speaks to our interconnectedness and the responsibility to each other that flows from our connection. It's about mutual affirmation and communal responsiveness. It is about the self being so rooted in the community, that your personal identity is defined by what you give to the community.

'I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am' is a good example of the 'self-in-community' foundation that gives rise to sayings in Zulu, such as umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu - 'It is through others that one attains selfhood'.

Ubuntu is not a concept easily distilled into a methodological procedure. It is rather the bedrock of a specific lifestyle or culture that seeks to honour human relationships as primary in any social, communal or corporate activity. Ubuntu begins with simply knowing how to greet someone. Examples of Shona greetings (from Zimbabwe) in the morning and lunchtime would be:

"Mangwani. Marara sei?"
(Good morning. Did you sleep well?)

"Ndarara, kana mararawo".
(I slept well, if you slept well.)

"Maswera sei?"
(How has your day been?)

"Ndaswera, kana maswerawo".
(My day has been good if your day has been good.)

In other words, we are all so connected to each other, that if you did not sleep well, or if you were not having a good day, how could I sleep well or have a good day? This kind of greeting would apply equally well to a stranger one met on the road as to close family.

Ubuntu also translates into attitudes towards profit and wealth. In an ubuntu-based economy, the more communal person is prepared to give and share. The more that person does, the more she or he is respected. Africans believe that the only wealth is that which is shared and rendered visible to the community. The criterion for respect in a world that embodies ubuntu values would be how much wealth is shared with others and not how full one's personal bank balance is.

Work in the African sense is not just a simple contractual relationship. The Nguni word for work is umsebenzi, which literally means 'service'. Joining a company is seen as a commitment to a new community. Workplaces that embrace ubuntu ensure that every person is valued and included in decision making.

Compassion is a central part of ubuntu. Africans are known for ukwenana, an act of giving or sharing without expecting returns. Another practice called ukusisa is a 'yin', a form of investment that does not require collateral and also maintains the dignity of a poor person who has no assets.

According to the custom of ukusisa, those who have cattle or sheep give a cow or ewe to those who do not, to give the family an opportunity to acquire their own cattle and sheep over time. This is how newcomers in villages are helped. And this is how poorer communities and poorer countries could be helped.

African values have a great deal to contribute to world consciousness, but Africa is greatly misunderstood in the West. Our world must embrace a sense of interconnectedness as a global community if we are to survive. Perhaps ubuntu is a framework that could inform our thinking in the twenty-first century.

Barbara Nussbaum is co-author of Sawubona Africa (Zebra Press, 1996), which looks at the management implications of African culture and values.

Bill Totten


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